This painting, by the French artist Jean-François de Troy (c. 1679 -1752), re-creates one of the murderous scenes from the catastrophic end of the mythical Romance between Jason and Medea. Their story was a long one. Jason, a member of the royal family at Iolcos, was sent by his paranoid uncle, Pelias, on a quest to fetch a magical Golden Fleece from the lands of King Aeetes of Colchis. Jason, captaining a ship called the Argo, which was crewed by many famous warriors of Greece, succeeded in reaching Colchis. Nevertheless, Jason likely would not have succeeded in obtaining the Golden Fleece if not for his affair in Colchis with Medea—King Aeetes’ daughter. Medea, a powerful sorceress, helped Jason overcome King Aeetes’ challenges, and she ultimately showed Jason how to steal the Golden Fleece from her stubborn and reluctant father. With the Golden Fleece and Medea on board the Argo, Jason and the Argonauts fled from Colchis and resumed their seaborne adventuring, eventually finding their way back to Jason’s homeland of Iolcos. There, Jason and Medea brought about the death of Pelias, which caused them to be exiled. At that point, Jason and Medea made their way to Corinth, where King Creon was ruling. Such, then, is a brief backstory for Jason and Medea’s presence in Corinth.
Unfortunately for Medea, Jason fell in love with a local Corinthian girl named Glauce. For Jason, it was not just sexual allure, but also political attraction, because Glauce happened to be the daughter of King Creon on Corinth. Creon, for his part, energetically supported the relationship between his daughter and the famous adventurer. Yet, there was a problem—Jason and Medea were married and had children. King Creon, however, nullified the marriage on the excuse that Jason and Medea had been married abroad. With that hurdle out of the way, Creon also decreed that Medea would soon be banished from Corinth.
Medea ultimately came to terms with her situation and she realized that she would not be able to charm or argue Jason back to her side. Yet, coming to terms was not the same thing as making peace with the situation. Instead, Medea plotted cruel revenge. Acting as if she was sending a congratulatory wedding gift to Glauce, Medea had her uninformed children carry poison-laced garments to the unsuspecting princess. These gifts were a beautiful robe and a golden garland headpiece. Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE), the Athenian playwright, wrote of the horrible effects that these bewitched garments exacted on the doomed wearer:
“The golden garland set upon her head was sending forth a wonder, a stream of all-consuming fire, while the delicate robe, the gift of your children, was feeding on the wretched girl’s pale flesh…Overcome by calamity she fell to the ground, so mishappen that only a loving parent would find it easy to recognize her. Her eyes had lost their usual clear and settled look, her face its loveliness. Blood mingled with fire dripped from the top of her head, her flesh melted from her bones like teardrops of resin as your poisons gnawed invisibly…But her poor father, still unaware of the calamity, suddenly came into the house and fell upon the corpse” (Euripides, Medea, approximately lines 1185-1205).
As Glauce’s body was surrounded by all sorts of foul poisons and magic, the fire and toxins spread to King Creon, killing him too. After the poisonings, Medea was said to have murdered (or abandoned) the children she had by Jason, and then she fled to Athens, where she married King Aegeus. Yet, she was kicked out of that city, too, after she was discovered to be plotting murder against Aegeus’ famous son, Theseus. As for Jason, there are differing myths about him after the horrors that occurred in Corinth. According to some of the more popular tales about Jason’s demise, he either took his own life or was eventually crushed by a falling beam.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Euripides’ Medea, translated by James Morwood in Medea and Other Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998, 2008).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.